Foil? Aw, Shucks! Again?

Foil is a literary term used to describe a character, usually the opposite of another character, whose purpose is to make the other shine. Fun fact, the term foil, in literature, is believed to be taken from the street vendor practice of placing gems on a reflective surface to enhance their sparkle in shine. But what has any of this got to do writing?  Well . . .

What is Foil and Why is it Important?

Foil is a literary technique used to contrast two characters in a story. The foil is a character meant to draw attention to another character, typically, the protagonist, to emphasize the qualities of one over the other.  For example, a protagonist may be contrasted with an antagonist or a hero with a villain. Classic examples of foil characters are Sherlock Holmes and Watson and Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

Due to the nature of foil characters, they are frequently mistaken for the antagonist. The two are not the same. Both deal with essentials: The foil seeks to expose something in the protagonist (or other character while the antagonist wants to oppose something about the other character.

Foil is important to a narrative for 3 reasons:

  1. Readers gain a deeper understanding of the characters.
  2. Foil puts characters into context.
  3. Lead characters down a different path. A foil can do more than compliment their counterpart. As an opposite, the foil may cause the other character to travel a different path than they normally would have. Example: Before Watson came into Sherlock’s life, he had a habit of always going about his business alone and never viewed the world from any other perspective. However, after Watson entered his life, Sherlock began interacting differently with the world.

How to pronounce Foil?

Foil is pronounced FOY-ul from the Middle English foilen meaning “spoil a scent by crossing it.”

Why do Writers use Foil?

Writers use a foil when they want to illustrate the differences between two characters. The foil is used to emphasize the qualities of one character over another. For example, John Watson (the foil) is the polar opposite of Sherlock Holmes (the protagonist). They are friends and colleagues, but Watson is friendly and caring while Sherlock is unemotional, relying solely on logic. Typically, the object of the foil is the protagonist, but this is not in stone. Any character may have a foil.

How Should Writers Use Foil?

The foil is useful for many reasons. The foil character can be used not only to emphasize difference but also for comic relief, to create tension, and help move the story forward. Here are a few useful tips for using a foil:

  • Use your foil to teach the reader about a moral or theme.
  • Use the foil to highlight certain traits or qualities in the contrasting character. For example, Watson’s friendly, caring demeanor vs. Sherlock’s highly logical approach to life and work.
  • Your characters should be similar, yet different as in Sherlock and Watson, both are detectives.
  • It is often helpful to use the foil to create tension as it moves the story forward.

The 2 Types of Foil in Literature

There are 2 commonly accepted types of foil in writing. In practice, they are not difficult to spot. However, they do seem a bit confusing when trying to define them, so examples have been provided to try and simplify explanations.

  • Object as foil – This scenario occurs when an author uses an inanimate object by contrasting it with another. This type of foil may be used to contrast the settings, moods, or atmosphere. For example, a character picks up a snow globe and shakes it emphasizing the coldness of a room and compares it with the outside which is warm and sunny.
  • Subplot as foil – This type of foil may be used to create tension and advance the plot of the main narrative by making the story more complex. By creating subplots within the main story, a writer can emphasize information in a way that might not have been possible. Shakespeare is a master of this type of foil. In Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are foils to Hamlet, but they also have another agenda. They seek vengeance.

Of Note . . . It should be noted that some argue the above foil typing is incorrect. Those who disagree have defined foil type as character, situational, and thematic. For the most part, the character and situational typing fits nicely in the subplot as foil typing while thematic foil fits better under the object because it is more likely to deal with thematic comparisons.

Foil in Literature 📚

Before diving into film, let’s take a look at foil characters in literature and other works.

If we examine The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we find Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are foils. Gatsby is an enigmatic, self-made man who is passionate and idealistic, while Tom is wealthy, arrogant, and materialistic.

When considering Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the two characters who most come to mind are Wickham and Mr. Darcy. Wickham is the fun, easy-going soldier while Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof. Later in the novel, it is revealed that the reserved Mr. Darcy is clearly the better man as Wickham proves to be a fickle, immoral man.

Perhaps even more striking than Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy is the contrast between Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. In this novel, Basil is the foil to Dorian. Dorian is young, vain, and immoral while Basil is more mature, moral, and idealistic.

Foil in Children’s Literature 🧸

A classic example of a foil in children’s literature is the relationship between the characters Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Winnie is an optimistic, cheerful character, while Eeyore is pessimistic and gloomy. This contrast between the two characters serves as a foil to highlight the differences between them.

And in Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Tom are foils of each other. Guided by his moral compass, Huck makes decisions logically whereas Tom, driven by his sense of adventure, flys by the seat of pants and makes his decisions impulsively.

Foil in Film 🎥

As in literature, the foil in film exists to contrast and emphasize the characteristics of its counterpart.

In The Princess Bride (1987), just as Westley is the foil to Prince Humperdink, Vizzini is the foil to Westley’s alter ego, the Dread Pirate Roberts. The comparison is that Vizzini is not only over talkative but also overconfident because Sicilians have a reputation for not losing battles of wit. Roberts, on the other hand, remains cool, calm, and collected throughout the interchange even though he knows he will win.

The Dark Knight (2008) – Harvey Dent (before his transformation into Two-Face) and The Joker are foils.Dent, representing justice, is pure-hearted and the symbol for good while The Joker, representing chaos, is the symbol of fear.

Foil Characters are Most Often Mistaken for . . . 👥

  • An Antagonist is a person, group, force, or idea that actively works in opposition against the protagonist. As mentioned earlier, a foil exists to expose while an antagonist exists to oppose.